Essay: Phobias, Phonecians, Grandpa Bunderson, et cetera

Phobias, Phonecians, Grandpa Bunderson, et cetera

by Anne-Marie Waterhouse

Fear is usually a good thing. Like most other aspects of human nature, it serves a purpose. Fear is what prevents us from steering our cars wildly in and out of traffic. Fear keeps us out of the rowdier bars on Saturday night. Fear kept us from electing Walter Mondale. Of course, car accidents, rowdy bars, and Walter Mondale are all legitimate fears, but fear can become a problem when the things we’re afraid of are not legitimate. We’re now venturing into the realm of the phobia, a subject I know something about. For years my mind played host to a phobia so obscure that its sufferers have yet to show up on Oprah, Phil, or Geraldo. I was afraid of the number twenty-seven.

Twenty-seven is a hard thing to stay away from. Acrophobes can generally avoid walking a high-wire between towers of the World Trade Center. And claustrophobes seldom realize their worst nightmare, which consists of six months of submarine duty, at the end of which they fall into a death-mimicking coma and are subsequently sent home and buried alive. But twenty-sevens are everywhere. As long as people count, there will be twenty-sevens.

Counting was invented by Phonecians. They needed something to do when they weren’t busy attacking Sumeria, and they decided it would be neat to be able to look at stuff and know how much of it there was. They had tried counting before, but it was difficult because they didn’t have any numbers. They would say, “There’s a thing and there’s another thing and there’s another thing,” and that meant there were three things, but they couldn’t possibly have known. So, at about the same time that the moon got a job telling women when to menstruate, the Phonecians invented numbers. Counting became all the rage in the Fertile Crescent. They counted rocks. They counted trees. On rainy days they stayed inside and counted each other. There was just one hitch: they only counted up to ten. They could’ve gone higher, but the idea scared them silly. The popular belief was that going beyond ten would have exposed them as pretenders to godhood, thus bringing down the wrath of Anu, who was acting as god until God was found. (And lest you be tempted to ridicule their naivete, let me remind you that the Phonecians had people like you for lunch.) So the years went by and they went on counting to ten and having a wonderful time, and things would probably have stayed just as they were, except that Marco Polo journeyed to China and discovered the number eleven. He found it in Shanghai Province, I believe, and brought it back to Europe. Then, as today, the Europeans weren’t the sort who could leave a good thing alone. They incorporated eleven into the numerical system. That really let the cat out of the bag, because once you can count to eleven it unleashes the full fury not of the god Anu, but of something much more mystical and mysterious: base-ten mathematics. If you can count to eleven, you can count forever. On to a million. On to a googolplex. Eleven is the destroyer of limits. The Europeans aimed high, and numbers opened the door to all kinds of discoveries. Newton told people about gravity, and they were so amazed they fell out of their chairs. And onto the floor. Which surprised Newton not a lick. Galileo was arrested and charged with discovering the moons of Jupiter. Columbus set out to find a new route to Asia and stumbled upon a New World instead. He was disappointed at first, but later acted like he’d meant to do it all along. There were other revelations too, scores of them, big and small. The only thing they had in common was that they’ve caused the world to go downhill at a steady clip ever since.

This is the legacy of numbers.

But the prime focus of this story is phobias, not numbers. Phobias are not rare. On the contrary, they’re as common as ghosts in a graveyard. It’s those who are not afflicted who are in the minority. “Everyone has phobias,” Freud once said, “Except for those who don’t.” Not terribly eloquent, but not bad for a cocaine addict who thought that people ate, drank, slept, swam in rivers, entered spelling bees and bit their nails because of sex.

Psychologists define a phobia as an irrational fear of something stupid. And when you see a grown man lunging across a sidewalk crack to spare his mom from traction, you might tend to agree. But when you examine a phobia closely and begin to see its root cause, it gains credibility. An acrophobic person standing on a high bridge, for instance, is not really afraid of heights; he’s afraid of wandering too close to the edge and being deprived of height. Quickly. Likewise, a claustrophobic person is merely showing a healthy aversion to smothering underneath a pile of rocks and dirt. That’s called self-preservation. Even an enigmatic phobia such as walking under a ladder has an explanation of sorts. It’s rumored that the triangle formed by the ladder, the building it’s leaning against, and the ground is symbolic of the Holy Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To walk through the triangle is to disturb the perfect equation, and The Lord will be all over you like a flock of moths on a $40 suit.  How do we acquire phobias? It differs. Sometimes they take a long time to manifest themselves, infringing upon the psyche like a glacier inching into southern climes. And sometimes they jump on your back like a puma from a mountain pass.

Imagine an eight-year-old girl. She is alone for the evening. Mom and Dad are out for dinner and a movie, and little sister is sleeping over at a friend’s house. A baby-sitter was suggested, but the girl is at an age where she is duly insulted by that concept, and her parents let her have her way. Only now she wishes there was a baby-sitter to terrorize, because she is dead bored. The novelty of being alone has worn off. It’s too dark to play outside. The episode of MASH on TV is a rerun, and she wouldn’t have understood many of the jokes besides. She needs a diversion.

The girl notices the encyclopedias in the bookcase against the living room wall. She’d never paid much attention to them before. She assumed they’d play a role in her life much later on; in junior high maybe, when she’d be expected to write ready-made history reports. But maybe it’s never too early to start improving your mind, she decides. It’s a decision she will live to regret.

She goes to the shelf and takes down a volume at random. The book looks important: military green with an impressive coat-of-arms embossed in gold relief on the cover. On the edge is printed POLY-RAIL, indicating the range of the alphabet covered within. She likes the feel of it. This is no Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. This is a bygod book, full of information that adults saw fit to pass on to each other. It occurs to her that she is about to trespass into a world she is not quite ready for, but the idea is fleeting.

She opens the book and feels the breath explode out of her as if she’d been punched in the stomach. Staring up at her from the page is a human monster. The thing is female, but just barely. Her black-ringed gaze is steady. Her fingers, stretched across her bosom, are bony and rippling. She is smiling, but her lips are turned down at the corners, giving the impression that she knows your secrets and will make sure you burn alongside her in hell because of them. There is a palpable odor of malignant whimsy.

Had the girl read the text she would have seen that the book was opened to a section on Psychology. Had she glanced at the caption she would have learned that the picture was a self-portrait done by a psychotic artist during one of her darker episodes. She does neither. Slamming the book to the floor, she dashes upstairs to her bedroom and dives under the covers. There she waits. For what, she isn’t sure, but she suspects she is waiting to be “gotten,” that creeping childhood malady that has an eternity of befores and no afters. She closes her eyes and feels fear strumming at her spine. The monster is stuck inside her for the duration. She pirouettes through her head like a mad ballerina. The breeze outside her window becomes her voice, whispering hideous words of love. Every creak of the floor is a footstep, deliberate and measured.

She doesn’t come. She sleeps, and in the morning the face she swore she would never forget has already grown fuzzy in her mind. They say that childhood memories are the strongest. They’re right. But they fail to take into account the workings of that invisible Jack Frost who paints his designs over memory’s window as the child sleeps. How nimble and kind is his brush as it lends subtlety and nuance to horrific images. So the girl is bolder by the light of the morning. She doesn’t exactly rush to the bookcase and mock the she-monster for her sudden lack of power. She isn’t that brave. But she is able to chuckle at her over-reaction of the night before. She even diagnoses her behavior. A row of doctors might argue cause and effect for a week without reaching agreement, but to her the answer is clear: she’d acted just like a girl.

The brain is a fickle thing. It can bestow a kindness one minute, then turn around and really fix your wagon the next. The girl’s brain, for instance, allows the face of the monster to become clouded, but in its place it leaves a talisman; something that would resurrect in the girl not the image of the monster itself, but the same gut fear she had felt upon first seeing it. The talisman is the number of the encyclopedia wherein the monster lives. The number is twenty-seven.

You’d have to be a real dope not to realize by now that the girl is me. The monster faded, but twenty-seven haunted me, a black shark cruising the tranquil green lagoon of my childhood. Throughout my youth the number would pop up and create instant hell. I walked three miles to school every day in the third grade because the bus had a twenty-seven in its ID number. I wouldn’t climb a staircase that had twenty-seven steps. My math teacher gave me an F in multiplication because I seemingly couldn’t deduce nine times three. I made the mistake of admitting my phobia to my little sister, and she took delight in sneaking into my room at night and crooning “twentyseven twentyseven twentyseven twentyseven twentyseven” to the tune on the Twilight Zone’s “do do do do” theme song.

Then came high school. I matured, and so did my fear. It got worse. I had a crush on a boy but couldn’t call him because his phone number had a twenty-seven in it. A favorite cousin of mine couldn’t understand why I shunned him for a whole year, or why I suddenly turned up on his doorstep acting like my old chummy self…on the morning of his 28th birthday. True, the phobia did have its good points. I was getting ready for the mile-run at a track meet one day, and the race stewart came over to me just as I was setting myself in the blocks. “Here,” he said, holding out a square piece of cloth, “This is your number for this race. Pin it on.” It was a number I knew only too well. I and the starter’s pistol roared at the same instant. God in Nikes couldn’t have caught me that day. It was the only time that running into twenty-seven caused me to run into the record books. I pared 19 seconds off the old school record, set by Tracey “Trots” Cutler in 1966. My record time still stands.

But records come and go. Reputations come and stay. My phobia was turning me into a legend in geek mythology. I suppose I could’ve taken comfort in the fact that I wasn’t the only member of the Waterhouse brood who sported an oddball fear. My Grandpa Bunderson was afraid of lightning. Not of lightning in general; he didn’t fear for his own safety, nor for that of his home or family. No, he was only afraid that lightning would strike a certain oak tree in a certain part of his yard.

The reason Bunderson was so protective of that tree was that he was a voyeur, better known as a peeping tom. He was also a gentleman who wouldn’t dream of violating a young lady’s privacy by spying on her. So what he’d do is leave a Playboy magazine open on his bed, climb up the tree, and peer in at it through the window. It satisfied his urge to peep and kept him out of trouble with the law at the same time. And if this practice represents the most elemental level of voyeurism, you have to admit that it’s theater of the absurd at its best.

Bunderson went up the tree at least once a day. He also fell out of it at least once a day. His peeping was a poorly kept secret; indeed, he made no effort to hide it at all. It was Georgia, his wife, who felt the pain of embarrassment. You’d be having a conversation in their living room when all of a sudden Bunderson would pardon himself and go outside. Georgia would blush deep red and mutter, “Oh, he must’ve remembered some yard work,” or some such excuse. But you would suspect otherwise. And your suspicions would be confirmed moments later when you caught a glimpse of Bunderson’s flailing arms and legs plummeting past the window. If there was a lesson in those falls, he never learned it. “Nobody ever got killed falling out of a tree,” he’d say. He was such a hard guy to rattle. Except if there was a thunderstorm. Then he would light dandles and say novenas and pray that the lightning strike something or someone besides his tree. He has a large assortment of copper pipes he’d brought from a nephew in the plumbing business, and as the sky grew purplish and thunder drummed the horizon, Bunderson could be seen on a step ladder, surreptitiously sliding the pipes up on his neighbor’s roof, hoping to bribe the lightning into striking there, if indeed it must strike somewhere.

Bunderson’s quirk was stranger than mine, but when you’re a kid it’s hard to see past the end of your own nose. I thought my phobia was ten times worse. Finally, two years ago, I decided it was time to end it. I was tired of the anxiety, sick of the electric awareness of numbers that pressed my nerves like a caffeine buzz. I figured that the only reason twenty-seven still bothered me was that there must be a trace of the monster’s face hiding in my memory. If she was exorcised, the idiot number would follow. And the only way to purge her was to confront her.

She was now living in our attic. A new set of encyclopedias had replaced the old ones, and the military green books had been retired, kicked upstairs. So one day when no one was home I took a flashlight and went looking for them. I pushed open the attic door, and when I didn’t see them I thought that maybe my parents had sold them or given them away to Goodwill. But talismen never leave without saying goodbye. They have to take one last shot at you. And sure enough, there they were, off in a corner, mouldering away under a menacing coat of dust and years, waiting for me like death and taxes.

There was no insulation in the attic, so the books were appropriately mildewed and smelly. That smell caused a flutter of fear behind my breastbone, but I steeled myself and picked up a volume. Not volume twenty-seven. I thought I’d work my way up to it. With feigned nonchalance I thumbed through the preceding books and let my eyes wander over the entries.

Gein… Goebbels… Guyana Massacre…

Hauptman… Hess… Hitler…

Ivan The Terrible…

Jack The Ripper… Jones, James…

Khan, Genghis…

LaVey… Leopold… Loeb…

Manson… McCarthy… Mengele… Mussolini…

Pol Pot…

I was into the P’s. I was actually holding the thing. With mild surprise I noticed that the twenty-seven on the spine of the book hadn’t burned a rosefire tattoo into my hand. I ruffled the pages, they fell open to Psychology, and there she was.

“Remember me?” she seemed to croon. “Come live with me and be my love, to quote an old poem.” And I was afraid. She scared me when I was a kid and she scared me now. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. But something had changed. The fear I was experiencing was the same kind I felt while watching a horror show by myself at night. It was unsettling, but not incapacitating. I looked down at the picture, and the slightly dump lupine eyes, at the hair badly in need of a wash. “So you’re it,” I whispered to myself. “So you’re the mother of it all.” I closed the book and bid farewell to an open wound.

I’d gone to the attic to exorcise a monster, only to discover it had been a case of mistaken identity. Monsters plunder the innocent and draw and quarter decency and stink like dead fish in the net of natural order. Of these things she was guiltless. It was all in my imagination, and we don’t need our imaginations to find monsters. The truth is, the world had never had to look beyond its own four corners.

Grandpa Bunderson’s phobia was cured just a few weeks later. Maybe cured is the wrong word. Let’s just say that something happened to guarantee that he’d never again have to worry about his tree getting struck by lightning. Namely, his tree got struck by lightning. By a bolt of apocalyptic magnitude, to hear him tell it. He’s lucky to be telling it at all, since he was in the tree at the time. He wasn’t injured beyond some scorched arm hair, but the tree got cleaved down the middle like a piece of split kindling, and had to be bulldozed out. Bunderson, however, is nothing if not a testament to the human spirit. He’s planted another oak on the same spot. It’s just a sapling, and every day he waters it and nurtures it and prays that the time he has left on earth will exceed the time needed for the tree to grow one strong branch at window level. He looks at the window with a gleam in his eye and says, “Just have to wait, watch, do what I can and hope for the best.”

Bunderson is right.

So was Freud.

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